Day Jobs

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Fifteen

Day Jobs

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Like a lot of middle class American kids my first job was doing chores around the house for which I started receiving an “allowance” once I got old enough to want to buy stupid crap. I washed dishes and took out the garbage[1] and when I got big enough I started mowing our lawn. Somewhere around this time, when I was around eight or nine, I discovered classic rock and this new band called Guns-N-Roses, which led me to purchasing a Sony Walkman to listen to cassettes on. This enhanced the lawn mowing process to such a rocking degree I started mowing lawns in our neighborhood and eventually landed a contract to mowing the grounds of our small town’s mortuary.

The mortuary gig, which I’d keep up until I graduated high school, was pretty damn sweet. It paid ten dollars an hour, an epic sum at the time, and its owner wanted the grounds mowed every five days, regardless of rainfall, from nearly the moment the snow melted until the snow returned the following winter.[2] The riding mower, push mower, weed whacker, and gas jug were all kept out in the mortuary’s garage, right beside the mortuary’s single gray hearse. I knew dead people were cooling their heels inside the building, right on the other side of the garage door, but I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me. I’d fire up the push mower first, mow the small strips of grass surrounding the mortuary proper, and then head out to the much larger lawn on the other side of the rectangular parking lot that surrounded the mortuary on all sides. The whole process took about three hours and I happily gave myself over to it, burning to a crisp beneath the sun while I inhaled gasoline fumes and blew out my ear drums to songs like “Rocket Queen” and Skid Row’s “I Remember You”.

I also started mowing other lawns in town, riding my bike across town and later driving our family’s mower around in my Oldsmobile’s open trunk. I mowed for my step dad’s parents (his dad was our town’s eccentric mayor for over twenty years) and I briefly mowed the lawn at a hog farm a few miles outside of town until one day I failed to notice a dead, heat-bloated rabbit and ran over it, incapacitating the mower and forcing the hog owner’s son to scrape out the rancid rabbit guts.[3] In high school I also worked part-time at an IGA grocery store[4] and had the pleasure of paying taxes for the first time while still mowing lawns on the side.

During the summer between high school and starting college I quit my grocery store gig and started a lawn mowing “company” with my best friend, Ben, who was also a writer. We called our little startup Lords of the Lawn and drove around town at high speeds, chucking fliers at people and shouting our availability into the wind. Not surprisingly, we ran out of work in about two weeks and ended up working outside of town at the grain depot/farm where my stepdad worked as a mechanic. Ben and I were straight up grunt workers and told at the start of the day what our tasks would be by a twenty-something farm boy lifer who was just smart enough to make our townie lives miserable. We pulled nails out of a sheet metal roof for a few weeks and I developed carpel tunnel syndrome in both wrists and began waking in the middle of the night with my hands curled into stiff zombie claws.

After the roof finally gave up its last nail we started mucking out grain around the depot. This involved shoveling rotten corn muck into a skid loader bucket for hour upon endless hour. The corn muck looked like pig shit but it smelled worse somehow, with a funky fermented tang to it, and the smell burrowed into your skin and haunted your nose even though we wore masks (which themselves were stiflingly hot and clung to your face after they grew wet with sweat, like they were trying to suck the air right out of your lungs). This was in July and August and Ben and I worked mostly indoors, either in a shed as big as damn airplane hangar or inside nefariously hot grain silos, which had concrete floors and aluminum frames and trapped heat and humidity like they’d been designed to torture prisoners, not store feed corn.[5] One day as we shoveled and shoveled we saw a farm cat sitting on the edge of the grain trough, holding an enormous rat in one paw and gnawing on it like, to quote Ben, “it was a burrito”. One July day found us engaged in our worst task yet, actually descending underground to muck out a rotten corn tunnel in the near dark. We did this in fifteen minute shifts, with one guy sending up a bucket to the lucky above ground guy, and the tunnel wasn’t just dark and stifling it was also filled with biting horseflies. Ben and I quit the grain depot sometime in mid-August and when I told my easygoing stepdad we’d quit he was just fine with it—he said he was surprised we’d lasted two months.

When I got to St. Olaf College I was a student worker at our IT center for two years[6] and then our library (Rølvaag Library, named after Ole Rølvaag, author of the excellent pioneer saga Giants in the Earth) for two years. During the three summers between academic years I was a traveling camp counselor, an editorial intern for a children’s non-fiction publisher[7], and a trash picker for the St. Paul Public Housing Agency.[8] The traveling camp counselor gig was for the Minnesota Farmer’s Union and was easily the most interesting, if draining, of the three.

For the first month or so my fellow counselors and I were put up in a chain hotel in the St. Paul suburbs which we used as a base as we traveled around the area to hold Famer’s Union day camps. My roommate/co-worker was an Ojibwe Indian from northern Minnesota who I’ll call Joe and he was about as laid back as any human being I’ve ever met. During our off hours in the evening Joe liked to read car magazines and drink chocolate milk and he didn’t seem to really care much about money, often burning through what little dough we made the same day we got our checks by spending it on stuff like a new CD player boom box or more magazines or buying everybody dinner at one of the chain restaurants we could all walk to. Joe was a kind and generous guy, like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, and when I wasn’t busy talking him into buying me junk food at the gas station I worried about other people taking advantage of him. In the middle of the summer Joe found out his girlfriend back home was pregnant and the news made him happy, despite the fact he was only eighteen with no real job prospects and I think she was only sixteen. We all headed north to hold a week-long stay over camp somewhere near Detroit Lakes and I met his girlfriend and some of his friends on the 4th of July and we all watched the fireworks together. It was nice.

A month later Joe got a call when we were holding another weeklong camp in another part of the state and he came into my cabin looking crushed. His girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage. I tried to console him as best as I could but the thing was too big for me, too big for nineteen-year-old Dave Oppegaard.

Joe stuck around for a few days, behaving erratically, and then one morning the sun rose and he was gone. He was in the wind. He left his new CD player boom box in the backseat of my car and I kept it until it broke many years later, one last parting gift from my grief stricken Ojibwe buddy.

#

I had the great good fortune of graduating from college in 2002, while 9/11 was still a fresh wound in America’s side , President G.W. Bush was already busy fucking things up with a Napoleonic audacity, and I’d delivered my mother’s eulogy only eighteen months earlier. I spent one torturous unemployed summer in which I lived in my aunt and uncle’s basement in St. Paul (and worked on my fourth novel) before I landed a job as an optician at an eye clinic on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. I worked there for about a year full-time, finished Novel #4, and applied to the MFA in Writing Program at Hamline University in St. Paul.[9]

After waiting for the graduate school interview for weeks the important day drew near, or so I thought. I got a call while I was taking a nap the day before the interview from a staff member at Hamline asking me where I was—somehow I’d gotten the date wrong and I was already fifteen minutes late. I asked the staff member to please let the committee know I was running late but would be there as fast as humanly possible, I only lived ten minutes away. After I hung up I rocketed out of bed, threw on my one suit (oh how I blush at my youthful earnestness now—it was a heavy black camelhair number that I’d talked myself into after graduating college) and drove across St. Paul at high speeds, still waking up from my nap and barely aware of the traffic around me. It was a blisteringly hot summer day. I parked near Hamline’s campus but had to walk across it and then cross Snelling Avenue to the Creative Writing Programs house (the program has since moved to a different house) and as I was running across the intersection at Snelling and Hewitt Avenue I failed to notice a bulldozer (!) that was part of a working street construction crew and I almost got flattened. By the time I entered the meeting room for my appointment for my admittance interview, I was this basically this wild-eyed, sweaty twenty-three year old who was channeling Chris Farley with every fiber of his being. I sat down before two annoyed faculty members (who would later become valuable allies) and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. Boy do I have a story for you!” and away we went.

I was admitted to Hamline’s MFA program despite this sweaty day[10] and I came to a decision: if I was going to attend graduate school I was going to do it up right and only work part-time so I could truly focus on my work and improving my writing. So I went part-time at the eye clinic and dug in to both the program and my revising Novel #4.[11]

#

Roughly fourteen months later Novel #4 landed my agent and I wouldn’t work a permanent, full-time position again until the fall of 2014, more than ten years later. I financed this period of feverish production (three years of graduate school work as well as eleven novels) with a mixture of thirty hours a week employment, straight-up unemployment, and a series of temp jobs such as adjunct teaching and standardized test scoring.

I wouldn’t exactly recommend this path and I will admit I have a tendency to do things the hard way. What I would suggest, however, is that any writer setting out on the writing path think long and hard how badly they want to be a professional writer and fully consider what they might have to sacrifice for it. I’m one of the very lucky few to make it as far as I have in publishing and I’m still broke, mostly unknown, and my day job history reads like a madman’s accumulation of stray tasks. By working part-time and ill-paying odd jobs in order to generate a constant churn of writing (the vast majority of which will never be published) I’ve bet on myself, more or less, and I’m still waiting to see if that bet ever pays off in an economically significant way, if I’ll ever be able to buy a new car (I’ve driven the same 1996 Honda Accord EX for thirteen years) or maybe, gasp, NOT live in a crappy one bedroom apartment. All this to get a leg up in an industry many have claimed is dying! While an anti-intellectual movement slowly gains steam in my own country!

It defies common sense, doesn’t?

Yes, yes it does.

But maybe that’s the point.

You can work very hard, be reasonably to greatly talented, and publish critically acclaimed work and still not make a big dent in the publishing landscape. You might have to work at your day job for so long you stop calling a day job and just call it a job. You might get sick of being broke and apply for that job that absorbs all your energy while your work suffers, if you return to your work at all. You might, simply, heartbreakingly, just not be lucky enough to break through, no matter how good your work is. Chance plays a frighteningly important part in the lives of many, many artists, all up and down the line—read any interview with any of-the-moment actor or writer or musician and they inevitably talk meeting the right person or being at the right place at the right time, and if they don’t happen to mention some kind of lucky break they’ve either forgotten it or lacked an awareness of the break when it occurred.

But there’s always hope, right? Maybe it’ll be the next story. Maybe it’ll be the next novel or the one after that which cements your authorial name and your daydream becomes your day job. It could happen. It’s happened before. It happens to someone every week. All you can do is give yourself over to the work, wanting more out of it than the pleasure of creation, perhaps, but content with the idea that, at the end of the day, the edifying nature of the work itself may be your sole reward. Otherwise you may find yourself chasing publishing trends and writing with external pressures in mind while your truly interesting material—what makes your heart and your voice unique—remains locked away and unavailable to you, which can only lower your odds of breaking into the marketplace in any manner, much less in a way you can still be proud of ten, twenty, fifty years down the road.

[1] One day I took out a particularly overstuffed, rank bag of garbage to our trash collection bin and halfway there the bag exploded all over me like a bomb, much to my mother’s amusement. We called that day The Revenge of the Garbage and I think of it often on the way to my apartment building’s dumpster.

[2] In retrospect the mortuary’s director was a consummate professional. He always kept the gasoline can filled and the mowers in good running order. He had me send him a monthly bill, which I typed up on our family’s shared Macintosh computer and printed out, and I always received payment, no questions asked, within five days of mailing out the bill. The only time he ever got mad at me was if more than six days went past and I hadn’t mowed or if I missed a patch of grass on the inner lawn.

[3] Still the only time I’ve been fired, which is rather amazing.

[4] Which had a smelly little pizza place attached to it, owned by the same dude. When the pizza place was low on employees I did double duty as a pizza delivery guy, which is a harder job than you’d think and involves fighting off a lot of slobbering dogs and staring down stingy no-tipping motherfuckers.

[5] I was listening to Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut album a lot during this period. It compounded my daily sense of sweaty delirium.

[6] I didn’t know much about fixing computers beyond “Let’s try restarting it” but I just passed all the hard jobs on to my co-workers like my buddy Mike. I spent most of my shifts “getting the mail” for the office, which involved walking maybe two hundred yards across campus and with a canvas tote bag to the campus mailboxes. Many was an hour I killed hanging out at our student center playing video games and eating pizza bagels and chatting with friends. Nobody noticed I was even gone, really, and one day we had a staff meeting (which I was absent from, since I was “getting the mail”) and our supervisor told everybody they should look up to me as an example of a good student worker since I was always willing to get the mail. Mike’s still outraged about this but I like to point out it was a better lesson for him about the working world than anything we ever learned in class.

[7] A whole summer of “getting the mail” and my first introduction to the modern office place, with my own terrible cube and everything.

[8] Which was as glamorous as it sounds.

[9] Fun story! I applied to five major graduate writing programs while I was senior at St. Olaf hoping to jump right in to the MFA world. I didn’t hear from any of them for a long time and it wasn’t until I came home from spring break of my senior year that my stepdad gave me all my mail that had collected at the house. This pile included five thin rejection letters from all five programs! I opened them one after the other! And then—I am not kidding—my step dad announced he was selling our home of nearly fifteen years.

[10] I also got into St. Olaf College despite my 2.9 GPA (me no good at math or science) with some help from their writer-in-residence Jim Heynen (since retired), who was kind enough to meet with me (and my mom, who made me go check out the school in person though I was already sold by the nice post card they’d sent me and the college’s suitable distance from home) before I applied. Jim looked at the novel manuscript I thumped down on his desk with bemused goodwill and I was told later he recommended me to the admittance committee.

[11] I will dutifully point out here this was only possible through the assistance of my grandmother, who was willing to pay the majority of my graduate school tuition. It was by no means St. Olaf-level tuition, which I had covered with all manner of student loans, but it was still exceedingly generous and made it possible for me to focus on writing over working. Thanks again, Grandma!

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